Shermer responds to Horgan

 This is the second of three responses to John Horgan’s piece of hauteur in Scientific American. In his blog post, he explained why he’s become “nuts”:

The biological theory that really drives me nuts is the deep-roots theory of war. According to the theory, lethal group violence is in our genes. Its roots reach back millions of years, all the way to our common ancestor with chimpanzees.

The deep-roots theory is promoted by scientific heavy hitters like Harvard’s Steven Pinker, Richard Wrangham and Edward Wilson. Skeptic Michael Shermer tirelessly touts the theory, and the media love it, because it involves lurid stories about bloodthirsty chimps and Stone Age humans.

But the evidence is overwhelming that war was a cultural innovation–like agriculture, religion, or slavery–that emerged less than 12,000 years ago.

I hate the deep-roots theory not only because it’s wrong, but also becauseit encourages fatalism toward war. War is our most urgent problem, more urgent than global warming, poverty, disease or political oppression. War makes these and other problems worse, directly or indirectly, by diverting resources away from their solution.

In response, Michael Shermer had this to say about war, which I quote with permission:

John Horgan has an understanding of war on par with a beauty pageant winner who declares her dream of “world peace.” He doesn’t understand the nature/nurture issue and he’s stuck in a 1950’s model of human behavior as either genetic and inevitable or cultural and malleable. Since he’s against war (how original) he can’t accept any genetic explanation for human conflict because he thinks this means war is inevitable. In brief, he makes three errors:

  1. Horgan doesn’t understand behavioral game theory and the evolutionary logic behind human conflict of all kinds, from murder to war. In The Moral Arc (p. 39) I begin with Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene:

“To a survival machine, another survival machine (which is not its own child or another close relative) is part of its environment, like a rock or a river or a lump of food,” says Dawkins. But there’s a difference between a survival machine and a rock. A survival machine “is inclined to hit back” if exploited. “This is because it too is a machine that holds its immortal genes in trust for the future, and it too will stop at nothing to preserve them.” Thus, Dawkins concludes, “Natural selection favors genes that control their survival machines in such a way that they make the best use of their environment. This includes making the best use of other survival machines, both of the same and of different species.” (p. 66) Survival machines could evolve to be completely selfish and self-centered, but there is something that keeps their pure selfishness in check, and that is the fact that other survival machines are inclined ‘to hit back’ if attacked, to retaliate if exploited, or to attempt to use or abuse other survival machines first.”

This leads to moral emotions and behaviors that include altruism, pro sociality, and cooperativeness along with selfishness, competitiveness, and revenge when exploited. Conflicts are inevitable between survival machines competing for limited resources, reproductive opportunities, etc. Thinking of conflicts as either inherited or learned misses the point entirely. Such conflicts, from murder to war, often result from the logic of such competition. Horgan seems to think that if violence is genetic then it builds up like steam in a pipe that has to be released before it blows, but that’s completely wrong. And as a hockey player he should know better: when he gets slammed into the boards by the opposition, if he doesn’t slam back, and cultivate a reputation as someone who “inclined to hit back” if hit first, he’s going to lose status, reputation, and resources.

  1. Horgan is trapped in binary thinking that clouds his thinking about how frequent war was (or wasn’t) in the past. Here is what I wrote on pp. 97-98 of The Moral Arc:

“Forcing a continuum of violence into a category of “prevalent” or “pervasive” misses the point of what we’re interested in knowing here: whatever the rate of violence in the past—by whatever the means and whatever the cause—was it enough to affect human evolution? If you insist that the rate must be high enough to be called “prevalent” or “pervasive” then you have to operationally define these terms with a quantity, including the term “war” that by today’s definition has no meaning for the type of intergroup conflicts that happened during the Late Pleistocene epoch in which our species came of age. As [Samuel] Bowles explains: “In my models of the evolution of human behaviour, the appropriate usage of the term [war] is ‘events in which coalitions of members of a group seek to inflict bodily harm on one or more members of another group;’ and I have included ‘ambushes, revenge murders and other kinds of hostilities’ analogizing human intergroup conflict during the Late Pleistocene to ‘boundary conflicts among chimpanzees’ rather than ‘pitched battles of modern warfare’.”

In The Arc of War the political scientists Jack Levy and William Thompson begin by adopting a continuum rather than categorical style of reasoning:

“War is a persistent feature of world politics, but it is not a constant. It varies over time and space in frequency, duration, severity, causes, consequences, and other dimensions. War is a social practice adopted to achieve specific purposes, but those practices vary with changing political, economic, and social environments and with the goals and constraints induced by those environments.” (pp. 51-53). When nuanced in this continuous rather than categorical manner, we can see both how and when rates of warfare change. By defining war as “sustained, coordinated violence between political organizations,” however, Levy and Thompson have defined away prehistoric group conflicts that don’t at all resemble political organizations of today. As such, “war” cannot even begin until there are political organizations of a substantive size, which necessarily means that what we think of as war, by definition, was impossible before civilization began.”

Nevertheless, Levy and Thompson acknowledge that the rudimentary foundations for war as they define it were already there in our earliest ancestors—even suggesting that “border skirmishes” with Neanderthals in Northern Europe may account for the latter’s extinction some 35,000 years ago—including “the observation that hunting and homicide skills made suitable weaponry, tactics, and rudimentary military organization available,” and that “group segmentation helped define group identities and enemies, thereby also facilitating the potential for organizing politically and militarily.” (p. 1) Thus, they endorse “an early if infrequent start for warfare among hunter-gatherers,” which then increased over time in lethality with improved weapons and increased population sizes, and this continued throughout the history of civilization as states increased in size until nations fought nations, leading to an increase in the total number of deaths, but a decrease in the total number of conflicts.

  1. Horgan is wrong that there are no “deep roots” to war. I cite dozens of studies showing both the antiquity and frequency of group conflicts in both our Pleistocene ancestors and in modern hunter-gatherer bands and tribes. Here are a few:

Bowles, S. 2009. “Did Warfare Among Ancestral Hunter-Gatherers Affect the Evolution of Human Social Behaviors?” Science, 324, 1293-98.

Gat, A. 2006. War in Human Civilization. New York: Oxford University Press.

Glowacki, Luke and Richard W. Wrangham. 2013. “The Role of Rewards in Motivating Participation in Simple Warfare.” Human Nature, Sept. 6.

Keeley, L. H. 1996. War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lebow, Richard Ned. 2010. Why Nations Fight: Past and Future Motives for War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pinker, Steven. 2011. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Viking.

Wrangham, Richard and Dale Peterson. 1996. Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

In conclusion, I think Samuel Bowles said it best in an email to me on this subject:   “It seems to be a highly ideologically charged debate, which is unfortunate, because finding that war was frequent in the past, or that out-group hostility might have a genetic basis says something about our legacy, not our destiny.” (Personal correspondence, February 1, 2014.)


  1. Gabriel
    Posted May 19, 2016 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    I’m afraid Horgan is suffering an acute case of this:

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted May 19, 2016 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

      Horgan has long suffered of annoying-atheist-itis. It just boils over when he switches from rant to buffoon mode.

    • Harrison
      Posted May 19, 2016 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

      Randall Munroe is right alongside Horgan in thinking string theory is just a load of pseudoscience, and often in thinking he’s the cleverest person in the room.

  2. Matt
    Posted May 19, 2016 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    If Horgan “hates deep roots theories” so much perhaps he would be happiest hanging with the young earth crowd. Alternatively he could grow up and learn that in evolution theory description does not = prescription. Our nature is not a prison but a vessel we can steer in virtually any direction we want once we understand it. But if we don’t understand it, specifically that it is anachronistic, it can and will cause trouble.

    • Posted May 19, 2016 at 2:56 pm | Permalink


    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted May 19, 2016 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

      Well said! Understanding is the oars of our vessel.

      • Posted May 19, 2016 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

        Well said yourself. Although I might change “oars” to “rudder”.

  3. Zado
    Posted May 19, 2016 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    Horgan seems to be a capital-P Pacifist, with an almost taboo-like revulsion towards violence. Not just violence in practice, which is good to avoid, but violence in principle too–which involves obfuscating our understanding of the subject, opposing any idea that is seen to legitimize violence (such as grounding it in evolutionary theory), adopting a “hear no evil, see no evil” attitude towards human conflict, and engaging in the simplistic logic that forms the bedrock of modern antiwar sentiment: militaries are bad, the nation with the biggest military is the worst, therefore the U.S. is the worst. Needless to say, Horgan finds the fact that jihadists kill more Muslims than the U.S. ever has or ever will completely irrelevant.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted May 19, 2016 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

      And not just terrorists. The president of Syria has killed more of his own citizens in the last few years than Horgan has attributed to the US.

      Interesting response from Shermer – thanks for getting this Jerry.

  4. GBJames
    Posted May 19, 2016 at 2:27 pm | Permalink


  5. Posted May 19, 2016 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  6. Scott Draper
    Posted May 19, 2016 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    Shermer’s response was unnecessarily abusive, IMO. That’s no way to persuade anyone.

    • GBJames
      Posted May 19, 2016 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

      Huh? Too many citations?

      • Scott Draper
        Posted May 19, 2016 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

        I guess it’s invisible when “our side” does it:

        1) John Horgan has an understanding of war on par with a beauty pageant winner who declares her dream of “world peace.”
        2) he’s stuck in a 1950’s model
        3) he’s against war (how original)

        Sam Harris tends to do this too; he disparages people while in the process of “reaching out” to them.

        And I remember PZ Myers being puzzled after being snubbed by Chris Mooney at some conference. How could he have expected anything else after the horrible abuse that PZ had piled on Mooney?

        • GBJames
          Posted May 19, 2016 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

          Oh, get me my smelling salts! That’s what qualifies as “abusive”?

          • Scott Draper
            Posted May 19, 2016 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

            Maybe not by your standards. 🙂 But anyone on the receiving end would be offended and defensive, including you.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted May 20, 2016 at 1:19 am | Permalink

            Right with you there, GBJ.

            If that was abuse it’s the most pathetically wimpy effort I’ve seen in yonks.



        • Posted May 20, 2016 at 7:42 am | Permalink

          I have daily discussions with friends on Facebook that are far more “abusive” than this. Nobody leaves with their feelings hurt or any less respect for one another than we had before. This includes not just disagreements with people who largely side with me on most issues, it includes a Trump supporter whose sanity I question daily. Nevertheless, we don’t resort to personal insults and the debate is always quite lively.

          If someone turns and runs away, tail between his legs, after comments like this that are a bit blunt yet well supported, I think there’s an immediate need to grow some thicker skin.

    • Posted May 19, 2016 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

      Time for an anecdote: this “no bullshit” approach to dispatching…well…bullshit persuaded me. I’ve been a fan of the “gnu” approach before we embraced it as the “gnu” approach.

      (Does that make me a hipster? Ugh.)

      • Scott Draper
        Posted May 19, 2016 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

        Strange that in a group of rationalists, no one cares whether the approach works. One would think that we would investigate the science of persuasion and implement the techniques that have been demonstrated to be the most reliable. Instead, we seem to value the emotional thrill of really slamming the people who annoy us.

        • Posted May 19, 2016 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

          No, in the words of Dawkins, I care about what’s true. I can’t stand the idea that I’d need to go soft on bullshit simply as a matter of political expediency.

          • Scott Draper
            Posted May 19, 2016 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

            That point of view is irrational.

            • Posted May 19, 2016 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

              How so? I’d’ve thought insisting on truth no matter what would be condemnable as hyper-rational, if at all.

              • Scott Draper
                Posted May 20, 2016 at 12:29 am | Permalink

                There are many ways to state truth, some more persuasive than others.

                If you state the truth in such a way that it angers more than persuades, then your truth only inflicts violence. There’s a saying: “People that are brutally honest often enjoy the brutality more than the honesty.” What lose for this short-term satisfaction is the ability to achieve goals that you claim to have. That’s what’s irrational.

              • GBJames
                Posted May 20, 2016 at 7:08 am | Permalink

                To be brutally honest, Scott, that’s bullshit.

                Either one states the truth, to the best of one’s ability, or one doesn’t. The truthfulness of a statement is not measured by the sensitivity of the listener. You’re confusing truth with propaganda.

        • Filippo
          Posted May 20, 2016 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

          I can empathize with that. I have a certain relative who doesn’t think she has succeeded in “straightenin’ out” someone unless she has had sufficient opportunity to cuss them out.

          I’m reminded of dialogue from “Fiddler on the Roof”:

          Young rabbinical students to the Rabbi: “Rabbi, is there a proper blessing for the Czar?”

          Rabbi: “May God bless and keep the Czar – far away from us!”

    • peepuk
      Posted May 20, 2016 at 3:26 am | Permalink

      I think I’m one of the few here who actually liked the John Horgan’s piece. It’s however highly moralistic and morals are not about facts but about convincing people how to act.

      Therefore, in my opinion, the accused should be able to defend themselves and they should have a level playing field. Michael Schermer uses good and funny characterizations of John Horgan’s views on war: naive and out of fashion.

      Wouldn’t the world be utterly boring if we were to disallow these kind of exchanges of ideas?

      My answer would be yes.

  7. Posted May 19, 2016 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    Excellent response from Shermer.

    (Although, as a minor point, while we’re distancing ourselves from 1950s models of behavior, isn’t it also time to stop using “beauty pageant winners” as the standard cliche for ignorance?)

    • Kingasaurus
      Posted May 19, 2016 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

      I think using that example is fine in this case, because the cliche about beauty pageant winners isn’t just ignorance in general, it’s more about how such contestants always claim they want “world peace” to impress the pageant judges, but they have absolutely no idea how to achieve it.

      The “I want world peace” trope is specific to pageant contestants.

      • Henry Fitzgerald
        Posted May 19, 2016 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

        Exactly – it’s the rote recitation of platitudes that I took to be referred to here.

    • Posted May 19, 2016 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

      But beauty pageants are by definition superficial. I can’t see the day we will ever equate “beauty pageant” with “intellectual tour de force”.

    • Filippo
      Posted May 20, 2016 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

      Perhaps you’re right. It should be replaced by another cliché for ignorance, that bane of beauty pageant contests, the honorable, noble, high-minded, omniscient, omnibenevolent Donald Trump.

  8. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted May 19, 2016 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    Since Shermer related Lewvy and Thompson as “suggesting that “border skirmishes” with Neanderthals in Northern Europe may account for the latter’s extinction some 35,000 years ago”, I find paleoanthropologist and Neanderthal expert John Hawks’s recent take on this illuminating:

    “… when it comes to understanding Neandertal and modern human interactions, we have had lots and lots and lots of models and few testable predictions.”

    “The people who made the earliest Aurignacian, often assumed to be the earliest modern humans in Western Europe, did not have the intensity of symbolic artifacts of later Aurignacian and Gravettian people. Instead they seem to have been sparse and little different in most cultural practices from Neandertals.

    In other words, at the critical time when modern humans entered Europe and their population apparently grew, there was little cultural difference between them. There is even less evidence that there was any cultural advantage to modern humans who spread across southern Asia prior to 50,000 years ago.

    What gives? If we assume that “culture level” was a continuous variable, and that “modern humans” had a higher rate of increase than Neandertals, we get a very simple pattern. The data are not a simple pattern.”

    “I don’t object to the idea that Neandertals may have been cognitively different than modern humans—in fact, I think this is likely. The idea that Neandertals were fixed for stupid and modern humans fixed for smart is biologically incredible. Instead, we need to consider that if many Neandertals had challenges learning to work with some cultural innovations, many modern humans should have had such challenges as well. Key innovations, if rare, must have been stochastic.”

    “In the real world, some archaic people—including the Neandertals—really were more successful than most early modern human groups. Neandertals as a population contributed more DNA to people around the world than their “conquerors”, the Upper Paleolithic people of Europe.”

    [ ]

    • darrelle
      Posted May 20, 2016 at 8:50 am | Permalink

      Excellent link, I had not come across this before. Thanks for sharing it.

  9. Posted May 20, 2016 at 2:23 am | Permalink


  10. Five Daarstens
    Posted May 22, 2016 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    This has been forgotten now, but liberals used to believe that all human violence was learned. You can see some echoes of this in some sci-fi books and movies from the 1970’s.

  11. Joseph Lapsley
    Posted May 22, 2016 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    Most of the evidence I have seen goes strongly against Pinker’s argument, which conflates pre-agricultural groups with post. I teach about Native Americans, whose history aligns much more with Pinker’s critics than his argument. Here’s a review of Pinker’s book:

  12. KD
    Posted May 23, 2016 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    Personally, I think the Catholic crusade to end masturbation is probably more likely to succeed than Secular crusades to end war. It is sort of like Virgin Birth-level miracle versus God stopping the Sun in the sky.

    • Posted May 24, 2016 at 8:37 am | Permalink

      So what you are saying is that not all zeroes are created equally?

  13. Posted May 28, 2016 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Ratliff Notepad and commented:
    Excellent take down of an emotionally charged article by Horgan.

2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] there was an article by John Horgan.  Then suddenly there was this, this, this and probably much more, all saying that Horgan’s wrong about […]

  2. […] his website “Why Evolution is True,” Jerry Coyne has been summarizing the various critiques that deep-rooters like Steven Pinker […]

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